For months now, I’ve been donning corsets and hoop skirts for my role as Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s been an amazing journey and experience. I can’t wait for the movie to come out this Christmas. But all good things must come to an end and the Los Angeles cast and crew have returned to L.A. to finish the movie and I have returned to shorts and ponytails.
For my first official weekend off, I vacationed in the Europe-of-America, the French Quarter of New Orleans. With Essence Fest in town, the streets of the Quarter were closed to all but local traffic making for one of the quietest weekends I’ve seen in ages. Walking around Sunday, I remembered all the reasons I love my city. On our way to brunch at Muriel’s on Jackson Square, we passed a kid standing on the corner playing St. James Infirmary on a trumpet. While enjoying my Eggs Benedict, a Jazz trio entered the dining area and played a set while two toddler girls from different tables danced with their moms to all our delight.
Later, we passed a bar/restaurant with a chalkboard on the sidewalk reading, “Soup du Jour – Whiskey.” I’m not much of a drinker but I do enjoy this city’s humor and quirks. At the Rouse’s corner store, 3 women were asked to leave their cocktails on top of the soda frig while they shopped. New to the city, they looked confused, “So, I can’t drink in the store, but I can drink on the street?” Yep. Though, honestly, many stores allow beverages indoors too.
Walking through the Quarter, I’m often transported to other times and places. The city is mostly preserved in it’s original architectural beauty dating as far back as the 1700’s. I love all the balconies overflowing with hanging plants or ornamented with Mardi Gras beads and Saints flags. Sometimes, I feel like I’m walking through a city in France or Italy or Spain, surrounded by history and tourists. Other times, I’m in the New Orleans of yesteryear, walking past the house where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire or where Faulkner wrote his first novel, looking onto the same square once peopled by Spaniards and the French before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, or eating at the same restaurants my ancestors did. Today, after the storms passed and the city enjoyed the cool air it brought, I had another one of those days when I felt very lucky to be surrounded by so much history and heritage – punctuated, of course, by a tour guide on a horse-drawn carriage shouting historical points of interest with a voice like Sam Jackson’s and a face like Willie Nelson’s. Only in NOLA.
I came home to the very sad news that Treme Brass Band‘s Uncle Lionel has passed on. He’d seen it coming and had wanted to attend his own second line but things ended too quickly for us to enjoy his company at the remembrance. Uncle Lionel Batiste was always dressed in a suit and hat, like the lady killer he was. He wore his wristwatch strapped across his hand and was often seen carrying his big bass drum around town. I loved running into him on the street (and often did) and almost always reminded him that he still had the sexy. I chose him as my Favorite Local Character 2011.
He’s a you-had-to-be-there type of experience as a person, but I will do my best to capture his charisma and talent. At a backyard party in 2010, Uncle Lionel redefined the drum solo for me. As I stated on my post about the night, “Armed with drum mallets and grinding hips, the solo was characterized by sparseness, well placed thuds punctuating slow rhythmic gyrations. He basically turned the big sphere into a lover – no, a phallus. It was fun, cool and, yes, sexy. Hollywood has Sean Connery, we have Lionel Batiste.”
I’ve seen Treme Brass Band perform many, many times but my other favorite Uncle Lionel moment happened at a Trombone Shorty concert. The band was gearing up for one of Trombone Shorty’s long notes (when he holds a note on his trumpet without stopping for over 3 minutes ( video)) when, as I said in my post that night, “Uncle Lionel joined the stage and put the amazing Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews in momentary check. Uncle Lionel held his umbrella over his shoulder and played it like a trombone as he “sang” an imitation of the instrument. It was amazing. 80 years old, he got his sexy on and played a hell of an umbrella to the delight of the crowd. ”
Uncle Lionel was an institution, but the cool kind, like Snoop Dogg as a senior citizen banging on an upright bass drum topped with a cymbal. He’d been performing since 11 years old and made his own drum then used it to stay afloat during the Katrina catastrophe. In 2010, that drum was stolen and local radio station, WWOZ, put out the word and the Gambit featured a story shaming the culprit into returning the instrument, “You do not steal a man’s drum. Especially if he’s still alive and beating it.” The drum was returned within a day.
Uncle Lionel passed at 81 years old. His drumbeat was the pulse of this city and he will be missed. Local musicians will second line every night until his funeral, which will be announced soon. Here’s a video I found of Mr. Batiste banging his drum (and flirting) as only he could.